Siem Reap’s provincial government apparatus, which in 2010 was relocated to a remote site 16 km outside of the city as part of an extensive and hugely controversial swap of government land and buildings, is moving back to its old home in the tourist city’s center today, officials said.
In order to move Siem Reap’s entire administrative offices and staff back into the heart of the city, Prime Minister Hun Sen authorized municipal and provincial officials to switch buildings with the Apsara Authority, which manages the Angkor Archeological Park, according to a letter dated August 9 and signed by Prak Sokhon, a secretary of state for the Council of Ministers.
The order reverses the controversial decision to, a little over three years ago, move the provincial government in the opposite direction.
Siem Reap’s provincial government was moved in March 2010 after the little-known J&R Import, Export and Construction Company was awarded a contract to build some 60 new office buildings on a 42-hectare plot of land in the rural and remote Ampil commune. That land swap authorized the private J&R firm to take control of a number of extremely valuable provincial buildings in prime locations in Siem Reap, including on the city’s expensive riverfront area.
The man behind the swap and relocation, which was not open to public tender, was then-Siem Reap governor Sou Phirin.
In May, just days after taking up his new post, Siem Reap’s newly-named provincial governor, Khim Bunsong, announced that he intended to move all the municipal offices back to the city center, effectively reversing Mr. Phirin’s contentious decision.
The August 9 reversal order by Mr. Hun Sen states: “Swap the Siem Reap City administration with the Apsara Authority, and Apsara Authority swap with the Siem Reap administration building.”
“More land that is owned by the Apsara Authority, near Angkor Kyung You [the area surrounding the Apsara Authority buildings] is to be given to Siem Reap City Hall to build other departments under the authority…along with parks, parking lots, and additional space,” Mr. Hun Sen’s order states, adding that a special government working group will be created to facilitate the re-transition back to Siem Reap.
Mr. Bunsong confirmed Thursday that a total of 26 provincial government departments, along with Siem Reap’s provincial hall and more than 1,000 civil servants, would be making the slow move back into the city.
“All relevant officials have made this request and we are looking for more land” to house all the departments and staff, Mr. Bunsong said.
Former Siem Reap governor Mr. Phirin could not be reached for comment yesterday and Soeung Kong, deputy director of the Apsara Authority declined to comment on the impending departure of his office and staff to the remote Ampil site.
Several provincial officials in Siem Reap said yesterday that their former offices now belong to J&R, and many are still abandoned since the property swap in 2010.
Several officials expressed anger yesterday at the back and forth of the city’s administrative offices, including Siem Reap municipal police chief Mok Sam Oun who blasted the former governor’s decision to swap the land and buildings in the first place due to the long distances he and his colleagues had to travel to work.
Mr. Sam Oun also accused the former governor of hatching the land swap deal for personal profit.
“If a meeting starts at 7:30 a.m., I had to leave here before 7 a.m. For motorbikes, it took at least 1 liter [of petrol] to go and come back to work, but cars consume three to four liters,” Mr. Sam Oun said, adding that he and other civil servants only received salaries of about $125 a month. A liter of gasoline cost more than $1.25 at current prices.
“The previous governor swapped the land for his own interest. The new governor has seen the difficulties faced by people and officials [because of the move],” the police chief said.
“I think the land swap made a great benefit [for Mr. Phirin] because the land [in Siem Reap city] was worth thousands of dollars per square meter and the building moved to land that was worth $7 per square meter,” he added.
Municipal officials yesterday said that they were packing up their offices in preparation for the move.
“I am preparing my stuff. We are moving into the Apsara Authority’s place and they are moving here,” deputy provincial governor Chan Sophal said.
“It’s very hard to work here. Look, it doesn’t even have a mobile phone signal here,” Mr. Sophal said as a phone call with a reporter began breaking up.
Attempts to contact Lun Sothy, director of the J&R construction company, were unsuccessful yesterday as two phone numbers on the company’s website were not working. On its website, J&R say they also operate a pawnshop, an organic farming company, and they manage “a canal” in Kompong Thom province.
In the past decade the political opposition has decried the proliferation of swaps of valuable, centrally located government lands and buildings.
Conducted without public tenders and in secrecy by government officials, the swaps are often a boon for those lucky enough to obtain the state-owned land, as they get a prime piece of real estate in return for building replacement properties on land at a fraction of the price.